Mark Henry tells a story about Frankie Edgar that explains the ferocity of his competitiveness. Often in the week before fights, Henry—Edgar’s boxing coach—hosts a cookout at his house. This was one of those days, and during the festivities, a game of flag football kicked off in his yard, with both adults and children participating.
Edgar was, shall we say, in must-win mode.
“He was stiff-arming the kids playing flag football with him,” he told Bleacher Report, laughing at the memory. “I tackled him and broke his toe. But that’s how Frankie is. Super competitive. He plays checkers, whatever, he doesn’t want to lose.”
So then, you have to wonder how Edgar survived the one-year stretch between February 2012 and February 2013, when everything was falling apart. After a career trajectory that followed the path of a Wall Street bull market, Edgar had lost three in a row across two divisions. Title hopes were dim. Opportunities were slipping.
In a sport where lower-weight fighters age faster than most, Edgar was 31 and facing down the real possibility of a decline. Yet here he is now, three years later, and unbeaten since. Five victories in a row, including wins over Chad Mendes, Urijah Faber and BJ Penn.
And now at UFC 200, a chance at redemption against Jose Aldo, who is coincidentally the last man to beat him.
“It was definitely dark times when I looked at myself in the mirror, but then you look around you and see it’s not the end of the world,” Edgar told Bleacher Report. “The people who cared about me still care about me. My kids are still happy. That took the pressure off. I still hate that I lost three times in a row, but that helped me deal with it better.”
The perspective shift and resulting success has a title back within reach now. In facing Aldo on Saturday, the two will square off for the interim UFC featherweight championship.
A win would make him only the third fighter to wear gold in two different weight classes, joining his old foe Penn and the legendary Randy Couture.
Ordinarily, an interim belt is looked at with a sideways glance or a yawn; it’s mostly considered a placeholder for the top contender. But in this case, it’s certainly possible the winner will one day be upgraded due to the belief of many that current champ Conor McGregor will never make 145 again and defend the belt.
“I’m going to say no, he never fights there again,” Edgar said. “Every time it comes down to me, he finds a way to avoid me. Don’t get me wrong: He is the champ and that’s why I wanted him. I’d much rather fight the champion, beat him and take the belt so no one can have any questions about who the best is.”
Henry is far more blunt.
“I think Frankie would destroy him,” he told Bleacher Report. “At 145, I don’t think it’s worth giving him the time of day. This dude ain’t Frankie, I’ll put it that way. This guy has been stopped three times already. He’s not in the same realm of toughness and mentality as Frankie.”
Few fighters publicly voice their concern that time is of the essence, even if it is. Careers are generally short, but most generate a self-belief that they are exceptions to the rule. It’s a necessary trait in a sport so unforgiving.
Edgar is no different. Ask him how far into the future he can see himself taping up gloves and making the walk, and he won’t offer a number, but his answer says plenty regarding his mindset. Forty-five-year-old Dan Henderson just knocked someone out, he reminds you, while 37-year-old Michael Bisping just became the UFC middleweight champion.
“When Frankie fades out, I’d love to fade out, too,” said Henry, “But I think we might still be doing this when we’re 50.”
There is nothing irrational about any of this. While Edgar is still fighting at the top of his game, he’s been thinking about his post-fight existence for years, around the time he turned 30 and lost his belt to Benson Henderson.
Recently, Edgar and a partner opened a UFC Gym in North Brunswick, New Jersey, a 26,000-square-foot facility that offers traditional MMA, boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, fitness classes and a gym.
He also co-owns a wrestling school in Toms River, New Jersey, and is preparing to officially launch an activewear line: Move+ Sportswear. He also occasionally works as an analyst for Fox Sports.
“My main goal is still to be the world champion,” he said. “But I’m learning. I don’t want to be blind to everything on the business side. I’m making sure I see what’s going on. I’m conscious of what’s to come in the future, so I am trying to learn as I go while not losing sight of what my real goal is.”
While Edgar may have more things pulling at his time now—he’s also a married father of three—he still carries the same indomitable will to be the best that he’s always had, Henry said.
Those close to Edgar say it’s like a part of him, like an extra organ in his body. It was just a matter of sharpening his other skills to parallel his drive.
Henry cites Edgar’s win over Sean Sherk in 2009 as the turning point when everything coalesced. Henry had grown up a huge fan of boxer Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, in particular, his movement, footwork and control of distance. It was something he thought could work for Edgar, who was always at deficit of range.
His fight with Sherk back then was seen as a stepping-stone opportunity for Sherk, a former UFC lightweight champ who was hoping to get another crack at the belt. Instead, after implementing Henry’s vision for a few camps, Edgar found his breakthrough performance, spending the night sticking, moving and confusing Sherk, dominating him in a one-sided win.
Edgar's continual evolution has been the key to his longevity, and his growth has largely been pushed by his longtime association with Henry. Despite their history, the coach-student relationship between the two is one of the most unlikely success stories in MMA.
A former U.S. Army boxer, Henry held his own dreams of becoming a professional athlete until his body ripped them away from him.
One day, when Henry was 21 years old and in the middle of a match, he simply collapsed.
“I flatlined,” he said.
He was revived, and doctors later discovered he had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare disorder in which an extra electrical pathway causes a rapid heartbeat. Henry never fought again.
By the time he met Edgar a few years later, he had exactly zero interest in MMA. Sure, he had tried to watch it a few times, but when the fight hit the ground, he’d tune out, uninterested.
Their union only came about when Henry’s son, then seven years old, signed up for a wrestling class. The coach, Steve Rivera, was Edgar’s first wrestling coach years ago, and after he learned of Henry’s background, asked him to hold pads for Edgar.
Intent on focusing on his son’s wrestling progress, he declined. Over and over, he declined.
Finally, after some time passed, and he knew his son was well adjusted to the program, he gave in to the standing request.
“I thought he had a lot of great qualities,” Henry said. “He was smart, and he had speed and power. I remember telling Steve, ‘I think whoever trains him is lucky because he’s going to be really good one day.’ I definitely thought he was special. I didn’t know MMA, so I didn’t know about the ground game, but he had something about him. I used to spar him a little in the beginning, and if you hit him once, he’d come back even harder. Whatever discipline he put himself into, he got it.”
Edgar's ability to "come back harder" from first strikes has extended past the practice ring and to his pro career. In fact, rematches have been a constant theme for him, and he's done better the second time around in nearly every one, from solidifying his title reign against Penn to knocking out Gray Maynard.
That history, along with flip-flopped fates since their first go-round, make the rematch between Edgar and Aldo so compelling. Back then, Aldo was riding high as the undisputed, nearly untouchable king; now he will have to face and overcome the confidence crumbling that usually follows a first career knockout loss. Meanwhile, Edgar is full of self-assurance.
Apparently, many others wonder how the surrounding circumstances will impact the actual fight. According to OddsShark, while Aldo was installed as the favorite, Edgar has reversed the line to become a slight favorite to win.
Historically, too, Edgar has done well in rematches, including cementing his title reign with a second win over Penn in dominant fashion after a slim victory the first time around.
Both Edgar and Henry say he needs a better start this time. In the first bout, Aldo swept the first three rounds on the judges’ cards. He can’t let that happen this time.
“For sure, he’s definitely going to have some demons to get through to go to our fight,” he said. “He may be able to talk himself up and say he’s fine, but he’s not going to know for sure until we fight.”
Win or lose, Edgar’s got an ace in the hole. He can make bantamweight. Edgar walks around at around 152 pounds, bigger than his teammate, Marlon Moraes, who is the current World Series of Fighting bantamweight champ and considered one of the best fighters outside of the UFC.
Henry says Edgar would “definitely” give 135 a try in an attempt to become the first three-division champion.
But that’s in the future. A lot still is. Fighter, father, businessman, entrepreneur. For Edgar, another title is always welcome.